Growing Gray with Intention: Why is it so Hard for us Women?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

You’d think that letting yourself grow gray would be easy. You just sit back, relax, and watch your hair follicles die a slow, sure death. There are so many excellent reasons to feel good about the decision to go gray, and—if you are like me—you can list them all:

  1. You are delighted that you can free up a few hours of time on your calendar every few months.
  2. You feel vindicated that you are saving big on your hair coloring bills.
  3. You relish the fact that you don’t have to breathe in toxins or let them soak into your scalp.
  4. You feel smug for not being an eco-hater who flushes chemicals down the drain and eventually into our groundwater.
  5. You gloat in revolting against society’s images of female beauty that reek of toxic patriarchy.

Deciding to go gray means consciously disregarding societal norms. In a culture that undervalues all things old and overvalues all things young, letting oneself age without concern for one’s plummeting status is both terrifying and liberating, as Gloria Steinem put it so aptly:

“In a general way, women become more radical as they get older. The pattern is that women are conservative when they’re young. That’s when there’s the most pressure on us to conform, when we’re potential child bearers and sex objects. An­d we lose power when we get older. Which is a very radicalizing experience.”

On a technical level, is there anything not to like about going gray? I don’t think so. So why haven’t I fully embraced it? I set out to figure out what my problem is and I learned some stuff along the way.

Side note: I’m not shaming people who make the decision to dye their hair. The societal messaging about beauty that pushes women into covering up their gray is real, and the messaging resides deep in our bones. Ageism in the form of employment discrimination is also a real thing, especially for women. Above all, women certainly have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, whether for medical or aesthetic reasons. Period. Full stop.

A Faint, Gray Memory

We spied her bent over the bathtub with a box of dark brown hair dye. She was about 40 years old. She was half upside down and her butt was unceremoniously in the air as she awkwardly rubbed in the dye around her temples, which were the main areas going gray. She looked up at us through the bathroom door. We snickered at her. We actually probably guffawed.

Why did my sister and I tease our poor mom so many years ago? I remember thinking it was stupid of her to try to beat back the encroaching tide of gray. In my young mind, she was old, and she should just succumb. Enough with Jazzercise, Tab, Melba toast, and Vidal Sassoon hair dye. Who was she trying to impress? One of those dull suitors who would come by once in a while? She raised us to be feminists, intellectuals, athletes, and pragmatists, and this seemed just plain vain and stupid. What happened to “Free to Be You and Me”? Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” (Hear me Roar)?

Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Let’s review why my mom found herself draped over the bathtub in that unglamorous state in the first place. What makes hair go gray?

According to a 2021 article on WebMD, your hair color comes from melanin. Melanin comes from pigment cells in your hair follicles. As you get older, the pigment cells die and never regenerate. The reduction of pigment leads your hair to slowly turn to gray, and the eventual absence of pigment turns it to white.

The extent to which you’re likely to grow gray is largely governed by your genetics. Parents who go gray prematurely spawn kids whose hair goes gray early. Race also plays a role. White people go gray earliest (in their mid-30s), Asian people go gray next (late 30s), and Black people go gray last (mid-40s).

Health issues can speed up the graying process. Thyroid diseases, insufficient vitamin B12, vitiligo, alopecia, and smoking are some of the things that can expedite gray hair. And menopause, which involves a decrease in estrogen, also contributes to thinning hair. Thin hair breaks and falls out more easily, so if you’re older, it’s more likely to come back in gray.

Gray hair feels more stiff, coarse, and thin compared to nongray hair. Gray hair has a thinner cuticle, which gives your hair less protection from the sun, wind, humidity, heat, and chemicals, which in turn makes your hair lose water. This causes it to be thinner and frizzier. Let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace.

My Hair is my Identity

I always liked my hair, and others did too. It received many compliments. It was long and wavy and golden chestnut brown with hues of red. When I didn’t brush it, it was thick and curly. Sometimes I colored it, usually with a cheap box of Sun In. I played around with every hair style that grabbed my fancy in my youth: the flower child look of Jan in The Brady Bunch, Lady Di’s short and sassy do, Annie Lennox’s shocking flat top, and the ill-conceived mullet inspired by…I really don’t know. Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe?

Even when I didn’t like my outfit, my flat chest, or my big butt, at least I always had my hair as a flowing asset. It was one thing that I could fully control and that had a good return on investment.

Fast forward to my forties, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the approach of gray. It seemed premature compared to my friends, though, so I started dying my hair and carried on with my life. I didn’t like the toxins and always asked the hairdresser if there was a less poisonous alternative. Not really, unless I just wanted henna. The henna didn’t cover my gray hair well, so I was resigned to the poisonous products.

As my forties went on, my natural hair color became shockingly gray shockingly fast. (PSA: I found out later that my undiagnosed hypothyroidism played a big role in that.) I dabbled with letting my hair do its own thing, but always went back to coloring it. I honestly felt more youthful with brown hair. I carried myself with more confidence, dressed with more pizzazz, and truly felt younger in my body. I think seeing brown instead of gray reflected back in the mirror tricked me into thinking I was younger than I really was. And since younger is synonymous with prettier, in the patriarchal scale of valuation, it’s no wonder that brown hair boosted my ego.

What are the Stats on Dyeing?

Our society endorses a number of anti-ageing practices and products, all of which are fully backed by the beauty industrial complex. Wood (2019) estimates that 60% of Americans have gray hair by age 60. Imagine the beauty industry drooling over such a large market segment—all those people in need of rejuvenation products and services! Especially those poor, past-their-prime womenfolk.

The fact that there are double standards for beauty should come as no surprise. While men who are “salt and pepper” are considered mature, stable, and handsome, women are considered to have let themselves go.

Maniace of Men’s Journal advises a 26-year-old man not to dye his graying hair: “Graying is part of aging—it’s distinguished, it’s sexually attractive, and people dig it. If you color it, it’s like a neon sign saying, ‘I’m covering up what’s happening to me as a man.’” If only this same advice were given to women. 

Data show that men accept going gray at a far greater rate than do women. A survey of Americans indicates that approximately 11% of men dye their hair compared to 85% of women, according to Goldstein’s (2019) article. And these are repeat customers, to the delight of the beauty empire. Approximately 85% of women color their hair at minimum once every two months (Wood, 2019).

In the European Union, ECHA estimates that about 60% of women versus 10% of men dye their hair. I couldn’t find statistics for Asia, Latin America, or other places. I can only assume that the numbers are similar. Although dyeing one’s hair as a woman is in some ways probably a culturally specific phenomenon, it’s also clearly governed by a universal, unwritten code to look young. The stats might vary somewhat from country to country, but we all know that egg-laden, nubile-looking women are held in high esteem the world over.

Let Go and Let Gray

When COVID-19 hit and all the beauty parlors closed, I decided to cut the cord. I was only really visible via video conferencing, so I didn’t fret over my image too much. I figured that when the pandemic was over (in what, a few months?!), I could decide what my longterm hair plan was.

My friends and family said my gray mane looked great. They said it was an elegant, silver gray. I wasn’t so sure about that—it looked pretty drab to me—but the encouragement helped me decide to let it linger. I was already dressed in my dowdy pajamas from the waist down, so who cared if my coiffure was a bit matronly too? I joined an online group devoted to inspiring people to embrace their gray hair. It was empowering to hear other people’s stories. I let go and let gray. Sort of.

In all honesty, I still haven’t fully embraced my gray. It’s pretty lonely here in the gray-haired-50-year-old-female camp. I know that it makes me look older than my same-aged peers. If everyone would stop dyeing their hair, that would help the world see what a woman in her 50s really looks like, but I don’t think my complaints and pleas have much traction. Luckily, there are plenty of celebrity females who have gone gray and are inspiring others to do the same.

Here are some famous gray-haired women: Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Jane Fonda, Whoopie Goldberg, Emmylou Harris, Salma Hayek, Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Tia Mowry, Bonnie Raitt, and Meryl Streep.

All Aboard the Gray Train!

I know I haven’t completely marketed going gray as an easy act of empowerment with zero side effects or misgivings. But maybe I’ve convinced a few more revolutionaries to join me. Here’s the most important thing to know: You can’t, all by your lonesome, tackle the culture of patriarchy, which indirectly tells women that we are only desirable if we are young and fertile.

You must find your radiant silver-haired (or mousy-haired) people. Perhaps a friend of yours vows to never buy a box of hair dye again and you can be accountability partners. Or you can join a support groups to keep you on your path toward enlightenment and acceptance about going gray. Search up some bloggers or get on all the usual social media sites and you will find your silver-fox-embracing peeps.

Trust me, you’ll need a support system to keep you on your path. It’s very tempting to abort mission as you watch your two-toned hair rear its ugly head. Once your hats and headscarves stop doing their trick, you’ll find yourself desperately calling up your hairdresser in a sudden change of heart. You’ll go in for a trim and come out platinum blonde if you’re not resolute and tenacious.

What are you waiting for? All aboard the Gray Train! We’re on a journey to an exciting, exotic, mystery destination. What shall we call it? I have so many ideas!

Gray is Beautiful – Be Yourself! (GIBBY)

Zen and the Art of Going Gray (ZAGG)

Women Embracing Getting Older Naturally (WEGON)

Silver Haired Eco Lovers (SHEL)

Rage Against Ageism Altogether! (RAAA!)

Smashing the Patriarchy One Gray Hair at a Time (SPOGHAT)

Votes are open. Passenger reservations are accepted and tickets are free!

P.S. Mom, I hope you vote too. Sorry for being mean, and thank you for embracing your white hair and teaching me not to be afraid of aging! 😊

Citations

ECHA European Chemicals Agency. Good to Know About Hair Dyes. Chemicals in Our Life.  https://chemicalsinourlife.echa.europa.eu/en-US/good-to-know-about-hair-dyes

Goldstein, J. (2019). Why More DC Men are Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/09/25/why-more-dc-men-are-dyeing-their-gray-hair/

Maniace, S. Here’s Why Guys Should Think Twice About Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Mens Journal. https://www.mensjournal.com/style/heres-why-guys-should-think-twice-dyeing-their-gray-hair/.

WebMD (2021). Facts About Gray Hair. Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on November 15, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/ss/slideshow-beauty-gray-hair-facts#:~:text=Your%20hair%20follicles%20have%20pigment,%2C%20silver%2C%20and%20eventually%20white.

Wood, H. (2019). 27 Hair Color Statistics, Facts & Industry Trends (That Will Blow Your Mind). Hollee Wood Hair. https://www.holleewoodhair.com/hair-color-statistics/

Alexandra Grant, artist and Keanu Reeves’s girlfriend (©2017 Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

                                        

Yours truly

Bad Humor: Why We Laugh When We Shouldn’t and Why it’s Okay (Sort of)

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Laughing at the Wrong Time

You know those times when you absolutely should not laugh? When the tone is somber, subdued, reverential? Think of being at a religious ceremony or the family meeting when you know you’re getting in trouble as a kid. Well, you really have no business snickering. It’s the farthest thing from normalcy, decency, and decorum. It’s sort of diabolical, even. The problem is, I do have an unfortunate history of bursting out in hysteria at just these moments.

When my sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, we sat side-by-side in hard wooden pews in nice dark dresses and endured a long eulogy about our dear grandmother. We loved our grandma Emilita—Grammie or Gramacita, as we would call her. She was ornery and cantankerous. She was a cut-throat card player and Yahtzee fanatic who wasn’t about to lose to us little kids. She had a twinkle in her eye when she made snarky remarks, so we were pretty sure she wasn’t actually mad. We learned to appreciate her nuanced sense of humor rather than fear her scathing tongue.

Funeral attendees sat in silence and some were in tears. Every once in a while, my sister and I glanced at one another and shared a moment of sadness. Did I mention that we weren’t used to religious events or serious settings or sitting still for any length of time in girly dresses?

I think Gramacita’s spirit overtook us because at one point when my sister and I glanced at each other, we could see that the other one was trying to contain herself from turning that frown upside down into a smirk. It was just a subtle difference in facial expression, but when you and your sister are only 15 months apart in age, you just know. Soon we were both looking down at our laps and trembling. The adults next to us assumed we were crying. It didn’t take long for us to completely lose it and be forced to run out of that somber setting.

Why do We Laugh When We Shouldn’t?

Why does intense sadness or seriousness sometimes cross over into inappropriate bursts of laughter? I do think I have a strong absurdity gene. When things are preposterous or unexpected—whether in a comedic sense or in a heavy way—it’s like I get my emotional wires crossed. But it’s only around certain people, like sisters or close friends, that my nervous laughter comes out. I contain myself at work and around random strangers.

Psychologically speaking, my problem seems to be inappropriate affect or incongruous emotion. “Emotions, actions, or overall demeanor that seem out of place in a situation all fall under the general umbrella term inappropriate affect,” according to Cuncic (2020). However, I am choosing to reject this idea because it leads directly into discussions of brain injury or psychiatric disorders. Besides, I am not like this all the time. The conditions have to be just right for me to laugh like a hyena when I should be reaching for the Kleenex.

Nothing was Funny

My husband likes to tell the story of me completely losing my $hit during a very heavy movie scene in a theater while on a double date with him in college. The movie was “Gorillas in the Mist,” starring Sigourney Weaver. I loved anthropology and revered Dian Fossey and her tireless work on behalf of these endangered animals. I was fully into the movie and up in arms about the plight of these majestic creatures. Nothing. Was. Funny.

After many minutes of dreadful suspense, the camera suddenly zoomed in on the carnage that poachers left in the mountain gorilla troop. It was so silent in the theater that all you could hear were muffled sniffles. Tears were running down my face.

A woman in the audience broke the silence by standing up and yelling out, “Fu¢kers!” I immediately looked at my best friend and then collapsed to the floor, laughing hysterically. I don’t know why, but this hippie, intellectual woman in this liberal college town (who I was in all ways identical to) yelling at the screen flipped a switch and turned my deep horror into some sort of cathartic paroxysm. The idea that movie goers thought that I thought mountain gorilla poaching was a laughing matter just made it worse. I was in over my head. I was ushered out by my appropriately somber date while people gave me intense stink eye.

The Benefits of Laughter

Before you conclude that we should go back to the first explanation about me possibly having a serious mental health condition, I would like to consider a more favorable reason for my inappropriate outburst.

Ramachandran (2004) is a neuroscientist who posited the idea that nervous laughter is meant to reassure our fellow peeps that, even though the situation is tense, everything and everyone is going to be okay. He thinks that “laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal” (p. 22). He also believes that when we laugh during emotionally intense times, we are subconsciously trying to replace the painful or traumatic event with positive feelings.

I’m sure I was nervous to be on the date—I just wanted to be platonic at that time and knew he wanted us to be more than friends. And it was a terrible movie choice to inspire romantic feelings anyway, so I was probably grasping for a shred of positive energy. In retrospect, me having a bout of emotional dysregulation makes a little more sense. Plus, hasn’t everyone heard that laughter is the best medicine?

According to Cimons (2019), laughter is known to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and release endorphins, or happy hormones. It leads to relaxation and oxygenation, which is good for the heart and other organs. It improves the immune system and even lowers one’s chances of serious disease. Laughter is basically free medicine without side effects.

The sullen funeral goers and distraught theater audience may not have understood my uncontrollably mirth, but maybe in some little way it helped reduce everyone’s dangerous cortisol levels and overwrought limbic systems. Maybe just a tad?

Gramacita and Gorillas

In tense situations, I would generally recommend trying to pull oneself together, put on a long face, and act like an actual grown up. But if that’s impossible, I suggest rebranding your behavior as altruistic and even medicinal. Tell your friends and family all about the rationale and health benefits of laughing in the face of stress. And while you’re at it, send them an invoice for improving their physical and mental wellbeing at unexpected intervals, just when they needed a pick-me-up.

Gramacita would approve and join in on the racket. Gorillas? We don’t joke about them. They. Are. Always. Off. Limits.

Citations

Cimons, M. (2019, June 15). Laughter really is the best medicine? In many ways, that’s no joke. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/laughter-really-is-the-best-medicine-in-many-ways-thats-no-joke/2019/06/14/9f159208-8955-11e9-98c1-e945ae5db8fb_story.html

Cuncic, A. (2020, April 9). Understanding Inappropriate Affect. Very Well Mind.

https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-inappropriate-affect-4767992#:~:text=and%20related%20issues.-,Overview,umbrella%20term%20%22inappropriate%20affect.%22

Ramachandran, V. S. (2004). A brief tour of human consciousness: From impostor poodles to purple numbers. Pi Press, an imprint of Pearson Technology Group.

Laughing and trying not to laugh from 1980 until now

The Scoop on Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan

by Megan Taylor Stephens

My First Taste of Japanese Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day in Japan is not the same as Valentine’s Day in the Western hemisphere. I learned this the hard way. It was 1987 and I was an international exchange student at a Japanese public high school for my junior year.

I was dressed in my sailor style school uniform with a pleated navy skirt, white shirt, and matching navy colored jacket. I was tall and awkward and temporarily frozen. My friend nudged me toward a boy who we’ll call Takuya. I was holding a small box of fancy chocolates behind my back.

I dreaded giving Takuya the gift, but my friends had told me that I needed to make the first move. The custom was for the girl to give the boy a Valentine’s gift, and if he liked her back, he would give her something one month later on White Day. I seriously regretted telling my friends that I had a crush on him.

My friends had to explain to me several times what this Valentine’s Day and White Day tradition was all about. I was skeptical. I had never heard of such a thing and wondered if they were pranking me. But I reasoned that it was only fair to occasionally make the girl be forced to feel the same anxiety that boys typically feel about asking someone out on a date or making the first move. I definitely felt the anxiety, or rather, sheer terror.

I held out my hands and shoved the box toward him, saying the phrase I had practiced: Tsumaranai mono desu kedo, dozo (“It’s nothing much, but here you go”). Takuya’s face flushed and everyone around us tittered. I could tell he was surprised but I couldn’t interpret any other emotions. I darted off as soon as I could.

Chocolate Choices and Choice Words

When it comes to chocolates, not all are on equal footing in Japan. There are connotations with the type of chocolates you dole out. Here are four kinds of “choco” you may encounter:

· Giri choco are run-of-the-mill, obligatory chocolates that one gives to platonic friends and coworkers.

· Honmei choco are sincere, high quality chocolates that are given to one’s true love.

· Tomo choco are friend chocolates. Women buy these for each other as a sign of comraderie.

· Jibun choco are ones you buy for yourself as a little token of self-care.

On White Day, presents such as white chocolate, cookies, jewelry, or flowers are also common.

Should you intend to give someone honmei choco, consider using one of these handy dandy phrases. You’ve already embarrassed yourself beyond belief. You might as well top it off with an ill-pronounced or poorly scrawled message!

Anata ga suki desu あなたが好きです = I like you.

Anata ga daisuki desu あなたが大好き です = I like you a lot.

Ai shiteru 愛してる = I love you.

Tsukiatte kudasai 付き合ってください = Please go out with me.

The White Day Finale

It was an agonizing 30-day countdown to White Day, March 14, 1987. This was the day when I would find out if my crush would return my affection and give me a gift or if my overture would be ignored and my love would be spurned. It was going to be the talk of the school either way.

Takuya approached me, egged on by his friends, and had an agonized look on his face. He thrust out his hands, said Okaeshi ni, and scurried away. Oh no. He was basically saying not that he liked me, but that he was returning a debt. That didn’t sound promising.

Well, it wasn’t promising. The chocolates were unremarkable — decidedly giri choco and not honmei choco. He was teased by his guy friends and I had to lick my wounds the rest of the year. Thank goodness the new school year started in April so they could become seniors and I could have a fresh start by joining a new junior class. No more crushes for me. I was going to lie low. Only tomo choco or jibun choco from here on out!

***

Good luck to you. May the cupid gods forever be in your favor.

Break out the Tomo Choco!

Tips for Learning Japanese

by Megan Taylor Stephens

How my Journey with Japanese Started

As I sat in the airplane ready to fly to Sapporo, Japan, I had a panic attack. It dawned on me that I knew no Japanese other than a few phrases. Konnichiwa (good afternoon), Sayonara (goodbye), and Hajimemashite (nice to meet you) would only get me so far as an exchange student about to live with a Japanese family and go to a public high school for my entire junior year. I furiously flipped through the little dictionary I had in my lap. This was pre-Google Translate. Pre-smart phones. Pre-most-things, actually. The year was 1986.

What is the Japanese Language Like?

Don’t worry, Japanese has a straight-forward phonology, or sound system. There are only 46 syllable forms to learn, and they’re “phonetic,” meaning how it is written in Roman letters is pretty much how you pronounce it. These syllables are the basic building blocks for all the words you’ll learn. For example: a, ka, sa, ta, na, o, ko, so, to, no. Put any two syllables together, and you probably have said a word (e.g., kasa = umbrella; asa = morning; ato = after). It’s uncommon for Japanese words to end in a consonant. That’s why you’ll hear Japanese people adding a vowel sound to English words, such as raisu for “rice.”

Basic Japanese grammar is pretty simple too. English follows the Subject-Verb-Object word order (e.g., “I like sushi”), while Japanese follows the Subject-Object-Verb word order (e.g., “I sushi like”). It’s a bit more complicated than that, since there are various grammatical markers (particles) to add. “I like sushi” is Watashi wa sushi ga suki desu. It breaks down into: Watashi (subject) + wa (subject/topic particle) + sushi (object) + ga (object particle) + suki desu (verb).

Writing is more complicated. There are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which are like alphabets but for syllables rather than letters. The four syllables in the word “hiragana” look like this: ひらがな hi-ra-ga-na. Katakana is similar, but used for borrowed words, concepts, and names, such as the English word “box”: ボックス bo-ku-su. The third and final type of writing is called kanji.

Kanji are based on Chinese characters. Kanji are considered “ideographs” because they are symbols that represent ideas. For example, 木 means “tree.” Doesn’t it look like a tree with branches? 森 means “woods.” See the idea? Sadly, only the elementary school level kanji really look like something recognizable. But don’t get discouraged! Just learn a few a week and you’ll be able to get by eventually. You need to know a few thousand kanji to read the newspaper, a goal I never attained without a dictionary.

Different Ways to Learn Japanese

The best way to learn Japanese is to live in Japan. There are programs for older students to study in Japan for a few weeks, a few months, and even a few years. There are lots of jobs one could get in Japan as well, especially English teaching or tutoring. If moving to Japan is not feasible for you, the next best thing is to find a person to teach you who has high proficiency in the language.

Interacting with real humans in the real world is the surest way to improve proficiency in any language. There are language organizations where you can learn from a professional Japanese teacher. Or you can find a private Japanese tutor to teach you. Make sure to find an experienced teacher, even if the price is higher, because knowing a language from birth does not always translate into knowing how to teach effectively. If money is an issue, you can participate in a language exchange where, at no cost, you teach English in exchange for being taught Japanese.

For those of you who are solo flyers or lone wolf language learners, there are many reputable online programs and self-paced apps that offer Japanese learning opportunities as well. Just make sure the program is based on research and the science of language learning. Speaking of lone wolves, it is shocking how many people have been able to teach themselves Japanese on their own! I know teenagers who, through many hours of watching anime, have amassed an impressive accent and vocabulary. I know adults who were disciplined enough to learn the language just through YouTube, gaming, subtitles, and other forms of self-study. These people are truly dedicated, and also unusually self-disciplined.

Top Six Tips for Learning Japanese

Flash back to Sapporo, Japan in 1986. I spent a few months in the Silent Period. This is where someone doesn’t speak, but instead listens intently and absorbs as much as they can. It’s kind of what babies do, or anxious people who are afraid to make a million mistakes (me!). After a few months of my self-imposed silent treatment, I decided it was better to make a fool of myself and just start talking poorly one word at a time. Lo and behold, it worked! My host family siblings were very patient (and amused) as they corrected my speech and taught me 1st grade kanji. By the time I flew home in 1987, I was fluent in conversational Japanese, and after college, had a stint as a Japanese interpreter and translator.

In conclusion, my top six tips for learning Japanese are:

  1. If you can, go to Japan.
  2. When possible, learn from a real person.
  3. Do research before you begin a language program.
  4. Learn what you can for free: anime, TV, movies, YouTube, etc.
  5. Learn a phrase, word, or character every day. It adds up.
  6. Just try. Make a fool of yourself. The effort will pay off.

Ganbatte kudasai! (Good luck!)

My Pets’ Language Skills: A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Observation

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Jan. 7, 2022

Apparently, I have too much time on my hands, because I have been pondering my dog and cat’s ability to communicate. The following are my perhaps not-so-earth-shattering observations.

My cat has better expressive language. He has a certain meow to say “I’m hungry” and another one to say “It’s freezing, let me in.” He purrs when he’s content. Or he may just be self-soothing, because he often purrs just to purr. He swipes at me or bites me to say, “Don’t touch me there, Lady!” He has limited nonverbal communication. He does, however, stand next to the door and stare at it creepily to ask to be let out. He also rubs against me persistently with his tail up as if to say, “Feed me! I’m dying! And why haven’t you fed me in eons?!”

My dog has better social pragmatic and receptive language. She understands lots of commands and responds well to my tone of voice. She knows when my prosody and pitch indicate that she’s been a good girl or a naughty rascal. She understands and uses a wide array of nonverbal language, such as my gestures for “Shake, Roll over, Go away.” She makes consistent bids for interaction, such as bringing me a squeaky toy to throw. She has excellent reciprocity. After I give her scratches, she gives me licks. After I do a wrestling move on her, she does one on me. She rarely speaks except to say, “Let’s play!” or “State your name and purpose, Stranger.”

I should say that neither my cat nor my dog has superb pragmatic skills. One is quite self-centered and doesn’t really seem to give a rat’s rump about anyone but himself. The other doesn’t take hints that not all humans are dog people and they don’t unanimously appreciate slobbery licks. It could be worthwhile for me to do a developmental history interview to see what their birth parents have to say, if there’s any pattern of delays in littermates, and what their early childhood was like before I became their mom.

Who says the pandemic is totally nonproductive? This speech-language pathologist with too much down time has managed to do a quick language observation on her subjects. Now I will undertake some response-to-intervention before determining whether or not to move to a formal evaluation. I’m thinking of trialing some AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices such as those programmable buttons to help my pets communicate. Then again, that would require way more free time than even I have. The pandemic had better wrap up before I stumble upon other inconsequential distractions!

Imagine a Butterfly: How to Parent a Kid with ADHD

by Megan Taylor Stephens, M.A., M.S., CCC-SLP

Jan. 2, 2022

We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward. –Lara Cannon

SOS for ADHD

Send in the experts! Our teenager has ADHD, and it’s high time we get some proper professional help. Here’s the essential conundrum: My husband and I are often at an impasse about how to manage our kid’s behavior.

We often find ourselves entrenched in the opposing stances of prosecutor versus defense attorney when it comes to our son’s transgressions. We make our case for how egregious or petty we think the crime was. We make judgments on his frame of mind at the time of the misdemeanor. We decide how intentional or premeditated the action appeared to be. We sometimes even refer to historical precedents or bring in key eyewitnesses, like the little sister or the dog. I wrote a whole guest blog on this topic for ADDitude magazine called “Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline.”

Well, I finally found someone to give us sage advice. I reached out to Lara Cannon, a licensed professional counselor and ADHD specialist, with this question: How can families cope with divergent attitudes, especially when it comes to behavior and discipline, with their kids with ADHD?

Cannon’s take home message is that the more you can model awareness, flexibility, and problem-solving skills, the better you can activate the child’s desire to want what you want and the more likely you are to avoid conflict. Let’s break that down into specifics.

Here are Cannon’s five pro tips and my own interpretations in italics:

1. Educate Thyself

Parents should learn more about ADHD. When a child has a diagnosis of ADHD, it is important for caregivers to be on the same page about what it means and what it does not mean. In essence, ADHD is an effort regulation problem. Relying on the child’s internal regulation system (i.e., braking system or decision-making ability) when effort, focused attention, or self-control is required is a set up for failure.

Medication can be helpful, but it is not enough. Mindfulness and emotional regulation are skills that can be taught. Learning about how the ADHD brain works is also helpful. The role of the prefrontal cortex, limbic system, norepinephrine, and dopamine are a few of the buzzwords that caregivers should be knowledgeable about.

What I am taking from this is that our son is perfectly capable of attending to things he is interested in because it is effortless for him. Photography and videogames come to mind. However, he lacks attentional regulation and self-control when it comes to effortful things like household responsibilities. This is not a willful, intentional oversight. The idea of chores doesn’t light up circuits in his prefrontal cortex, arouse his limbic system, or reward him with buckets of norepinephrine and dopamine. All these things feed off of each other to perpetuate his neglect of responsibilities. Got it.

2. Reduce Friction

Parents should avoid power struggles. Pick your battles. Kids want autonomy, but kids with ADHD get ten times more corrections than neurotypicals. Reduce the number of commands. Let the small things go. It’s okay if your daughter didn’t manage to brush her teeth before school. Power struggles occur when caregivers and children have differing interests, which lead to a motivation mismatch.

Find out what motivates your child because these are high interest areas. Pay attention to what they naturally move toward, and power struggles will diminish. For example, if your child wants your attention (high interest), give it to them while you are doing yard work together (low interest). Or if they love dinosaurs (high interest), use them as a launching point for learning about other subjects like writing or math (low interest). If your teen wants to drive the car (high interest) then pair it with the responsibility of cleaning it and filling it with gas (low interest). Make sure the low interest responsibility is accomplished first, because once they have what they want, the motivation is gone.

So, basically, we need to dangle the car keys or computer mouse in our son’s face and tell him that he’ll only get them once his chores, homework, and other obligations are finished. But we should also let the small things go. Like maybe we shouldn’t care if his room is a pigsty, even if his damp towels and food-encrusted dishes are a bacterial hazard that seem poised to give him a respiratory infection.

3. Imagine a Butterfly

Parents can model emotional regulation. It is not easy to raise a child with ADHD, but responding to challenges in anger rarely ends well. Conflict is fueled by emotion, and emotions are contagious. Anger increases escalation, while calmness creates an anchor and helps maintain control. When you are experiencing anger, imagine that a butterfly has landed on your shoulder and you want it to stay. What do you need to do to keep it there? Be still, don’t make sudden movements, lower your voice volume, talk less, and observe what is happening around you.

Kids learn by example. When the child’s caregivers model mindfulness and emotional regulation, they are giving their child tools to regulate and modulate their own emotional responses in difficult situations. Learning mindfulness skills is an important key to a child’s success. 

I tend to be calmer than my husband when it comes to our son’s little lapses of judgment and small peccadillos. But when I do get angry, I’m known to climb up on a lectern and not descend until I have run out of oxygen and so has the entire room. All the butterflies have flown away to quieter pastures. I think I might singlehandedly start them on their biannual migration. There is clearly lots of room for improvement for me if I hope to be a Butterfly Whisperer.

4. Support Them Where They’re at

Parents can help their children form habits. Children with ADHD often have mind blindness. They are probably not paying attention to things that are boring or mundane. They may not even be aware of what they are doing until seconds after they have done it. That is because their powerful emotional and instinctual brain is way ahead of their slow-moving prefrontal cortex. Parents can support their child in creating effortless habits through “point of performance support.” This means that life skills are coached in baby steps with extra support in the beginning.

For example, the parent can hang out with their young child while she cleans her room. Someone could greet the teenager at the car with a trash can and tell him cheerfully that it’s time to tidy up. Maybe the kid has decided that it would be helpful to have a small bright trashcan in the car. Whenever possible, make the hard task easier to accomplish. Also, create systems for compliance and buy-in on more important things. Visual reminders and predictable schedules are another form of support that, over time, can instill habits in kids.

As a special educator, I am used to tailoring the level of support to my students that they require. I just forget that even kids who are perfectly capable of doing something—like my son removing trash from the car—may need a bit of guidance getting it done. Even if it just means that I’m waiting on the porch while he does it. I think my husband would say it’s preposterous to baby our teenager, but this Point of Performance Support may only need to happen for a short while before it becomes a habit that our son accomplishes independently. I’m really not sure when to expect independence, but as long as he’s semi-autonomous before he runs off into the sunset (or the basement bedroom), I’ll consider my job done.

5. Be a Guide

Parents should adopt a coaching mentality. A good coach has empathy, is understanding, and is a collaborative problem solver. They are not opponents or authoritarians. We’ve all had coaches who yelled, shamed, and punished, and we’ve also had coaches who nurtured, encouraged, and mentored. We know which ones we preferred.

Coaches are also not rescuers, they are guides. So don’t swoop in with a fabulous solution. You are stealing your child’s opportunity to learn that they can solve problems. Let your children have the fun and reward of discovering what works for them. Don’t do it for them, teach them how to do it. Repeat often. Teaching good habits is the key to success with ADHD. As much as possible, parents, help your child invent and create solutions on their own.

It’s hard to use an encouraging tone of voice when it’s the five thousandth time we’ve asked our kid to take his dirty dishes to the kitchen or pick his wet towels off the floor. I’ve found that saying “LBY” in a peppy voice has helped me feel like more of a coach and less of an angry nagger. LBY is our code for Look Behind You, because each and every time he moves from one room to another, there is guaranteed to be flotsam and jetsam left behind that needs tending to. Now the trick is to let our son come up with his own strategies to manage his ADHD. He’s about to be a full-fledged adult, and pretty soon his parents won’t be there to constantly coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him. Or, if he lives in the basement for decades, at least our voices will be significantly muted when we coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him.

In Conclusion, Have a Growth Mindset

I suppose Cannon didn’t directly help me and my husband on the issue of merging our divergent viewpoints. She didn’t give advice on how to dole out consequences to our child for his peccadillos. She didn’t really bolster my arguments as lead defense attorney. Instead, she gave us preventative tips to reduce conflict in the first place. This makes a lot of sense, I suppose.

Our judicial system, like our homes, focus too much on crime and punishment. Which side is guilty? Which side is victorious? What are the consequences? But if we would just create a better environment in the first place—one that focuses on nurturing, awareness, mindfulness, problem-solving, teamwork and success—our society would have a lot less parental bickering and a lot fewer court cases. The case of Stephens v. Stephens would be settled long before it comes before a judge.

But it’s not about the fictional attorneys or which parent won. It’s about the kids who we are trying to raise up into functioning adults. This endeavor is no easy feat. Our children have to learn by trial and error, and the trials and errors are extra when ADHD is in the mix. Fortunately, according to Cannon, “We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward.”

Forget crime or punishment. Let’s focus on growth, for the parents in particular. I’ve got a pet butterfly that I am determined to keep perched my shoulder.

Lara Cannon, M.A., LPC is a child and family therapist and owner of ADHD Child and Family Services in Tigard, Oregon. She can be reached at: info@adhdchildandfamily.com

Photo by Boris Smokrovic

My Experiment to be Mindful and Live in the Present for One Day

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner?

Living in the Future

“I can’t wait until Vancouver, B.C.!” I proclaimed in my childhood diary. “Only 52 more days til Europe!” I shouted. I grew up with a single mom teacher who loved to travel and show us the world during school holidays. We didn’t have a nice car or fancy things, but we had exciting vacations. In a way, I think this backfired.

Looking ahead to the starred day on a calendar truly got me through lots of tedium at school and in life—boredom with classes, low level friend drama, breakups with boyfriends. Small things didn’t matter because pretty soon we were off to escape the confines of this uneventful town. I looked expectantly toward summer vacation like I did the final countdown on my student loan payoff date or the birth of my very past due and excessively large firstborn child.

As an adult, I can see that I am firmly future-focused. And I’m starting to wonder if too much foresight is bad for the psyche.

Identifying the Problem

The other day, I checked off a day in my calendar at work, which happens to be at a school—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to summer vacation, even though it’s only December. As I marked off another day in the calendar and scanned to see how many were left, I felt a pang of guilt. Why am I so impatient to get through 24 hours and move on to the next day? What am I trying to get one day closer to? If I’m honest, why do I often wake up hoping for time to speed up and the day to be over? This does not seem like a good way to live.

Apart from general pandemic malaise and the wear and tear of parenting teenagers, I think two major issues interfere with my ability to live in the present. First of all, travel is in my DNA and without a trip in the future, my life has felt aimless. I’m fully aware that this a super snobbish, entitled problem. Poor Megan grew up seeing the world, and she suffers so without a trip planned for the future. My point is that it’s somewhat detrimental. This “I can’t wait for the trip around the corner” mentality is now just my way of getting through life. Ticking the days off the calendar feels like getting one step closer to a glimmering pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. You never know if you’ve made it to your destination, because: Oh my gosh! There’s another rainbow over there!

My second problem is that I am not very Zen. I’m more mindless than mindful, more Tigger than Pooh. Try as I might to be Type B, my Type A, mildly ADHD reptilian brain is having not of it. The most mindful I usually get is something like, “Look, a squirrel!” It’s kind of like smelling the roses, right? Kinda sorta? Anyhow, my hypothesis is that those are my two biggest challenges. And because I have no trips definitely happening in the future (I blame COVID), that leaves me with exploring how to be more mindful and in the moment.

The Research on Being Present

We can’t avoid the need for some amount of future thinking. Our success as Homo sapiens relative to Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis probably comes largely from being able to plan ahead. Coolidge and Wynn (2001) postulate that executive functioning skills such as planning were a central factor in Homo sapiens’ superior cognitive development and success. As far back as 150,000 years ago, our well-developed prefrontal cortex started letting us build animal traps, paint hunting diagrams on cave walls, and migrate around the world. All activities based on “prospective thinking”!

That said, all of us have heard about the benefits of rooting ourselves in the present by incorporating mindfulness and stillness into our lives. Studies show that mindfulness boosts our immune system, improves sleep and concentration, increases compassion, and decreases stress and depression, to name only some perks mentioned in “Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health” (Suttie, 2018). Sitting quietly while we feel the inhale and exhale deep in our core. Naming three things we’re grateful for every day. Noticing five things around us that go with each of our senses. I feel less Tiggerish just writing about these.

The opposite of mindfulness, mind wandering, is correlated with less happiness. After developing an app called Track Your Happiness, Matt Killingsworth wrote a paper in 2010 with Daniel Gilbert entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” The title gives away the conclusion: that mind wandering makes people less content than those focused on the present. Moreover, the researchers discovered that people think about what is not happening as much as they do what is happening. (I may have found my people!)

My Experiment

Like a good researcher, I decided to study how bad my “prospective thinking” or “mind wandering” problem really is. For 12 hours, I journaled about my effort to remain in the present and to try not to have thoughts of the future. How hard can it be for me to notice and smell the roses? My goal was to not let my mind or actions wander into more than one hour ahead of my present time and space. Well, here’s how it rolled out from 6:30am to 6:30pm (condensed version):

6:30am. The alarm goes off. It makes my heart rate lurch and my eyes shoot open. I am certainly living in the present now with my life-affirming cardiac palpitations.

7:00am. I thought about what to bring for lunch and banished it from my brain. I’m sure there’s some stale snack in my office drawer. Or I could eat an overpriced lunch in the cafeteria. Stop thinking about future food. Remind your primitive brainstem that you have ample fat reserves to protect you from starvation.

7:30am. I rode my bike to work while playing groovy 80s music on my speaker. “Don’t stand so, don’t stand so close to me,” sang The Police. Kind of creepy and pervy when you really listen to the lyrics. Hall and Oates interrupted my thoughts with: “I can’t go for that. No, no can do.” Seems like a good statement for teachers who are pushed to the limit. Then Fleetwood Mac crooned, “Saaaara, you’re the poet in my heart. Never change. Never stop.” Who was this paragon of a woman?

The songs kept coming. While listening and sometimes singing along, I noticed the intricate blades of dewy grass that sparkled in the morning light. I inhaled the fresh morning breeze and savored it deep in my lungs. The music brought a smile to my pedal.

8:15am. I scan through my schedule to see who I will work with today. Oops, don’t scan ahead. Just find the students as you wish to work with them. It will somehow work out. I catch up on emails and get some lessons ready instead.

9:00am. I grab two students from their self-contained class and we work on social and communication skills. We practice staying one arm’s length apart while we walk to my office. We role play how it feels to be too close and why it’s not appropriate for the time and place. We then do a language game where they answer WH-questions. They enjoy rolling the dice, picking out the shapes and numbers on the cards, and trying to answer the questions. My brain is in the present with these two boys.

9:30-11:00. More lessons with other students: a Wheel of Fortune style game and a 45-minute class lesson on verbal self-advocacy. The students are doing great. High interest and good participation. My students with autism are loads of fun. Being a speech-language pathologist is loads of fun.

11:45am. Lunchtime. I skipped food in lieu of doing some paperwork for an IEP meeting tomorrow. Is this a forbidden future action, or is it just me doing my job in the present, much of which involves prepping for meetings? I daydreamed about going on a trip to Hawaii, my old stomping ground. I could squeeze a week in with my daughter during winter break. She has been asking. She visited once as a baby but doesn’t remember it.

12:15pm-3:00pm. I worked with one student on her speech sounds and another on his speech fluency. Then more paperwork. Then some scattered thoughts. Who knows if the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will shut our lives down later. I imagine basking on the beach and can almost hear the whooshing waves.

3:00-3:30pm. I thought I could intermittent fast until dinner. Nope. I’m starving. I walked to a food cart and got a bite to eat. Burmese food is delicious. It packed some serious spice. The sun felt nice.

3:30-4:00pm. More paperwork, emails, bureaucratic frivolity. I thought of appointments I should schedule. When was my last pap smear? I think I should do teeth whitening. The dog really needs a nail clipping and that other gross thing I didn’t know about until I got a dog: expressing anal glands.

4:00-5:00pm. IEP meeting. The parent was intense. She had lots of concerns and complaints (not about me, but still…). I did a lot of querying, explaining, appeasing, defending, assuring. It was a relief when it was over.

5:15-5:45pm. Bike ride home. On goes the 80s playlist. Back on goes my smile. “Say you, say me,” sings Lionel Richie. “I had a dream, I had an awesome dream…”

5:45-6:30pm. The husband made pasta for dinner. We ate and talked with the daughter. The son was at work. We talked about whether or not the youngest and I should go on a trip to Hawaii. What activities would she want to do? Where would we stay? We happily imagine the sun, surf, snorkeling. The pasta didn’t disappoint. 

The Analysis

How able was I to stay in the present? It was pretty mixed. Riding my bike and listening to music was the pinnacle of my feeling in the moment. Working with students was a close second. Teaching requires focus, vigilance, adaptability, theatrics. There’s no time for zoning out. I also felt present while eating. No surprise. Food is delicious and food is life. Paperwork made me focus, but I didn’t feel much while doing it. Other times, I mind wandered uncontrollably.

It was a battle for me to stop drifting and fantasizing. But, to be fair, our society makes it very hard to live a satisfactory life based on the present tense alone. How do we balance mindfulness and appreciation for the present with our lifestyles that are manufactured to make us plan ahead? Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner? How can we possibly live in the here and now and still have a decent life?

The Take Home Lesson

A reminder to myself and everyone else is that satisfaction and joy can only be felt in the present. Satisfaction is doing a good job at work. Satisfaction is checking off duties from checklists. But joy makes you feel alive. Joy is pedaling to work singing along to Journey. Joy is on a baby’s face when you coo at her. Joy is in a toddler’s gallop at the park. Joy is the dog chasing a stick and bringing it back all slobbery. Joy is not planning for or fretting and dreaming about the future. Planning is essentially joy deferred.

The next time you catch yourself counting down the days to an exciting event, a better life, a hypothetical point in time, remind yourself about the counterpoint. Fantasies are fun but rarely fulfilled. Optimism, positive expectations, and plans for achieving goals are all fine and well. But life is not lived later. It is lived right here, right now.

So enjoy thinking about the airplane trip you will take later, but balance it with the trip you are taking to the post office right now. Fantasize about how calm and clean the house will be when the teens leave, but laugh with them today. Shop for the lasagna you will make for dinner, but don’t you dare forget to savor each bite of the creamy, cheesy, garlicky goodness that hits your taste buds. And don’t forget the wine. In moderation, wine is joy too.

***

Post script: We ended up buying tickets to go to Hawaii! To justify this, I’m sure my next article will be all about carpe diem and the virtues of living spontaneously. Before the trip, I vow to live fully every day. I am here…experiencing now…and noticing this drizzly, gray landscape with ungodly chilly temperatures.

Sources

Coolidge, F. L., & Wynn, T. (2001). Executive functions of the frontal lobes and the evolutionary ascendancy of Homo sapiens. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11, 255-260.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T., (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330, 932. https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf

Suttie, J. (2018, October 4). Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_mindfulness_meditation_is_good_for_your_health

My Very Specific Late Onset Anxiety Disorder

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Nov. 26, 2021

I seem to have slowly developed a fear of being separated from my people. It’s a very strange and specific fear that has only become obvious to me in the past few years. I think I can unpack it. Bear with me.

I love being alone—it’s a rare gift that replenishes me and reminds me that I’m not the extrovert I usually pretend to be. I don’t mind if my husband is on the other side of the world for work. He has good care around him and will be fine no matter what. I don’t even mind it when my teenagers are far away from me for a few days. There’s nothing I can do if something bad happens. I manage to let go and let live. What I don’t like is for my kids to be just far away enough to be inaccessible. So close yet so far. This crops up most when there is a body of water in between me and my kids.

It’s possible that my very specific separation anxiety may have started at this moment.

When I was three years old, my mom and stepdad took me and my sister to an island getaway in one of the many lakes of Minnesota. They dropped us off with family friends and took a much-needed mini vacay back on the mainland. It was summer. Warm and muggy and a perfect time of year to be surrounded by water. My big sis and I were thrilled to be at the rustic cabin in the middle of a lake that was only accessible by boat. And we were beyond excited to sleep on the top bunk of a bunk bed. What a treat!

At some point in the night, my position changed from next to the wall to next to the railing. No surprise, as I have always been a restless sleeper. At some point soon after, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up wailing in anguish. I had fallen out of the top bunk and had landed on the ground, splitting my chin open. A bandage was wound around my chin and the adults in charge tried to comfort me while they scrambled to find a way to get me off the island and to a hospital. I don’t think there was a phone. Or a boat. Eventually, someone rustled up transportation and I was rushed to a clinic, where I got stitches, a lollipop, and praise for being a brave little kid. It took forever to reach my parents. They really went off radar.

Flash forward to my life in Portland, Oregon. I love my life but I think I’ve come to hate the damned rivers that are at our doorstep. The majestic Willamette and Columbia rivers continuously separate me from my offspring. My anxiety and imagination are fueled by the certainty of two main things: the dozens of old bridges in need of repair and the Cascadia Megaquake that is scheduled to bring down all said bridges and countless other not-up-to-code structures in this quaint city at some unspecified point in time. It is certain yet uncertain, which makes it particularly vexing. It will definitely happen, we just don’t know exactly when.

Back to the rivers. Why was Portland set up to be on both sides of the river…and is it too late to propose a new city layout? Like an uninvited and oblivious dinner guest preventing me from dashing out of my house, the rivers throw a wedge between me and my escape plan. What if, when The Big One strikes, half of my family is on one side of the river and half are on the other side? Should I order an inflatable kayak to keep in the car? And why do my teens have to cross the river constantly to visit friends, play in sports games, and screw around on a Saturday night? Here’s another story to illustrate my paranoia—I mean, my point.

Not long ago, my friends had a little getaway to an idyllic island cabin in the Puget Sound of Washington state. I told some friends about my bodies-of-water-induced anxiety. They passed me more wine and told me there’s nothing to be stressed about. What’s the worst that can happen? At midnight, I called to check in on my then 17-year-old son, who was home alone in Portland. The Hubs was overseas and the other kid was staying with friends. My son told me, “Mom, you’ll never guess what happened.”

That’s never a good start with him. I inhaled deeply. He proceeded to tell me how someone with road rage chased him and a friend in their cars all over downtown Portland and, when the raging driver cornered them at a traffic light, he pulled a gun on them. They had accidentally cut it a bit too close when they needed to merge onto an onramp for a bridge. He was back safely home and had left a police report. He said all was well. I had a fitful sleep, as you can imagine. I obsessed most of the night about the ridiculous gun laws in this country, but that’s another story. I also plotted which ferry to take to get off the island pronto.

The day after this crappy slumber, the girlfriends cheered me up and we frolicked in a quiet little cove. We swam, splashed, paddle boarded, and reminisced about our fond childhood memories of summers spent in joyful, refreshing, rejuvenating lakes and rivers across the US. Needless to say, when the Hubs called later from “across the pond,” I did not tell him about our son’s misadventures.

My late onset anxiety is probably not 100% about water. I’m sure it has a tad bit to do with perimenopause. Exacerbated by the impending (or not?) megaquake. Enhanced by a little childhood separation anxiety. Enflamed by parenting stress from trying to raise kids in a dangerous world where we can’t protect them. Whatever it’s about, it’s probably time for me to ask the doctor for some meds for this very specific anxiety disorder that really should be in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). I am kind of partial to the water element, so I narrowed it down to two names. Should it be called Bodies of Water Induced Anxiety (BOWIA) or Effin’ Lakes, Rivers, and Islands Paranoia (ELRIP)? Let me know what you think.

My carefree kid on Sauvie Island (Wapato Island) along the Columbia River

The Tilikum Bridge shot by drone by my son (it’s new and earthquake resistant!)

Courageous Acts of Career Questioning: Stories about people who made job shifts during the pandemic

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Nov. 2021

I’ve learned that ‘making a living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life’.

–Maya Angelou

Career Questioners

My friend, Dorothy Davis, up and quit during the pandemic. She had a demanding job in an intense line of work: Head of Marketing in the tech sector. I knew she had been thinking of making a change for some time, and I’m so very proud of her. She had saved up money and finally gave herself the gift of walking away for a while to ponder her next career move. She is extremely talented and a genuinely good person, so I don’t doubt that something amazing will come her way. Dorothy’s Act of Courageous Quitting made me wonder who else has done something different or even radical with their careers during the Times of COVID.

Before I regale you with motivational stories, I want to acknowledge that there is great privilege in making a radical change in one’s career. Not everyone is in a place where they can throw caution to the wind and start over from scratch. Inadequate savings, childcare issues, unsupportive partners—these are only some of the things that might prevent someone from taking the plunge into a new line of work. Some people may be better off pivoting while staying within their lane of experience and training. Others might want to dip their toes in the water and test out their passions as a side hustle rather than jump straight into the deep end.

As I was poking around, I realized that I had lots of friends and acquaintances who went through both subtle and drastic professional shake-ups during the lockdown. A colleague, Emma Reznic, has kept her day job as a speech-language pathologist while pursuing a side gig as an illustrator. My neighbor, Gretchen Cook, went from being a product advisor for a food company to being a restaurant server. Sean Brochin reduced his special educator job to half time and became a half-time realtor. Jasmine Landry turned her educational leadership job into a fully remote position and launched herself as an educational consultant. Bridget Saladino was in a professional rut and decided moving to Italy was a now or never event, which she called “making limoncello out of lemons.”

While many doors of employment and opportunity have slammed shut, others have opened wide. Based on stories I was hearing, I came up with three broad categories of job change-ups that are happening during the pandemic: The Pivot, The Side Hustle, and The Radical Leap. I reached out to some job shifters and asked them exactly what they did, why they did it, and how they feel about the outcome. Spoiler alert: They all seem pleased with their Courageous Act of Career Questioning.

The Pivot: Ben

Ben Cosloy has been a general and finish carpenter for years. He has busied himself mostly with residential remodeling of old houses, doing the gamut from design to framing to finish work. He has also been a musician for years. He grew up with a love for jazz and rock that he largely attributes to Pink Floyd and his music-loving dad. Ben picked up the guitar in middle school, played in bands in high school, and plays in gigging bands part-time with his wife starting about twenty years ago.

As his carpentry jobs were delayed and work dwindled during the pandemic, Ben found that he had time on his hands to focus on things that brought him joy, such as his luthier hobby. Guitar building was a hobby that he started dabbling in about 15 years prior because he was too frugal to buy a guitar that he wanted. So he bought the parts he needed and more or less taught himself to build and repair guitars.

During the pandemic lockdown, Ben finished the first guitar he had started years before, built a new one, and it just kept going from there. He already had the basic wood shop needed for carpentry and could have stayed low budget by sticking with a jigsaw and endless filing and sanding. But he had a little extra unemployment money and used it to buy some specialty tools to enhance his luthier hobby.

It turns out that there was a robust market for hand-hewn guitars and Ben’s hobby could bring in money. Now Ben makes more than 50% of his money from guitar building, and his hope is that it will gradually take over carpentry and contracting altogether.

Ben was able to take his experience with building, woodworking, and finish carpentry and re-fashion it into something that gives him greater joy. He doesn’t think he would have made the pivot from his less satisfying and more stressful job to this more gratifying and creative line of work if it were not for the pandemic. First of all, the pandemic gave him the gift (and curse) of time. “Anyone with some woodworking experience and tons of patience could build an electric guitar—which is mostly what I do—but it took me a lot of builds to improve to where it wasn’t a totally white knuckle ride building them.”

The lockdown also gave Ben the gift of clarity. He calls it The Big Pause. “The Big Pause is something that helped me mentally, realizing that I was not locked into doing exactly what I had been doing previously.” He adds, “When everything is going to hell, it’s a lot easier to decide to do things that are important to you.”

Ben’s advice to others who don’t feel fulfilled is: “You don’t have to be stuck doing what you’re doing. Think about what you enjoy and what you’re good at and try to align those to your career goals. Also, it’s incredibly helpful to talk to folks who are in a field you’re interested in. I can’t imagine doing any of the stuff I’m doing without friends and mentors.” He particularly wants to give a shout out to Todd Mylet at Portland Fretworks repair shop.

Check out Ben’s guitars on his Instagram page and make sure to check out his bands Lord Master and Bad Assets.

The Side Hustle: Temujin

Pre-pandemic, Temujin “Temu” Nana worked fulltime in the tour industry as a tour manager and photo instructor. The company he works for takes tourists to far flung places all over the world, such as the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Norway, India, Morocco, and Namibia. Photography tour packages are Temu’s specialty. These small-group luxury expeditions are exhilarating and rewarding. Temu thoroughly enjoys going on these international adventure trips and doesn’t plan on quitting this day job. However, COVID-19 had other plans.

The pandemic lockdown radically thinned out the queue of customers looking for the travel experiences that Temu’s company offers. During his period of employment stagnation, Temu and his wife realized that they could easily relocate. They decided to test out a “gap year” move from urban Philadelphia to a rural area of Utah. The impetus was for him to be immersed in nature and delve into his area of passion: astrophotography.

“The idea was to go somewhere beautiful, near nature, not too close to people, and with dark skies. With the skies we have here in Utah, I was able to shoot consistently and in ways that are impossible in more light polluted areas. That was the big kicker. I learned and shot a ton.”

As Temu honed his skills in his area of passion, he was surprised to find out that even experienced photographers often knew very little about photographing the night sky. He found himself giving advice on deep space astrophotography, which led to presentations, which led to the bona fide money-making side hustle that he finds himself currently enjoying.

Now he says, “I simply love sharing my love of the night sky, and the more people I can get to appreciate it, the more we can protect places where we still have views of the incredible spectacle we have above us.”

Temu has succeeded in the sometimes challenging alchemy experiment of making lemonade from lemons, and he may not have done so without the impetus of the pandemic slowdown. “Not having the ability to travel simply made me focus on other things to take up my time,” he explained.

Temu says, “I think the greatest obstacle for most people is their own fear of uncertainty.” His advice is: “Make the jump, slowly at first and in segments if you need to, but just try. You can (usually) always return to your old life, if you want.”

Check out Temu’s astrophotography photos on his Instagram page here: Night Sky

And here’s the tour company he works for: Open Sky Expeditions

The Radical Leap: Jackie

Jackie Haddon has been a licensed clinical social worker for twenty years. She was the director of a large mental health agency for the last decade. As a social worker, she specialized in adolescent girls and their mental health challenges—depression, anxiety, sex abuse, etc. Jackie was very tired. After losing two friends to breast cancer and a father-in-law to ALS, she paused and reflected. It dawned on her that time was short, and she was allowing work to completely deplete her.

“I realized how much I had come to believe that busyness and stress was a natural byproduct of working,” she said. With the passing of friends and family, “I was made keenly aware that I was being arrogant to assume I had years ahead of me to find what made me happy professionally.” In order to have the quality of life and creativity that she craved, Jackie knew she would have to make a huge change in careers.

Jackie loved houses, interior design, home renovation, and project design. She is also passionate about equity and inclusion. To top it off, she has a charming and bubbly personality. She decided to become a licensed real estate agent, something she had been interested in for a number of years. She took an online class over the course of three months. Then she studied for and passed a test covering national and state real estate laws. She says it took her awhile to get off and running after that—she blames general pandemic distraction and disorientation—but now she’s making as much money as she was in her old job and having a ball in the process.

Even though her new career seems like an obvious choice to people who know her,

it was hard for her to take the plunge into the real estate industry. “I couldn’t imagine making the leap from professional do-gooder to selling homes. But once I realized I could incorporate my values around equity and accessible housing, it all began to fall into place.”

Jackie can credit the pandemic to helping her come to terms with the fragility of life. Life is unpredictable and sometimes unfair. But life is uncertain whether you’re working yourself to death or enjoying a creative and fulfilling career. She feels fortunate that she had a good sense of what profession would make her fulfilled, and she had support and resources to make the leap, which she knows can’t be taken for granted.

Jackie’s advice is: “Don’t just assume that it is impossible to leave your current career. Sit down and really look at what you need financially and then assess if there’s a way you can meet those needs somewhere else.”

As if propelled by all her forward momentum, Jackie is now working on other areas of interest. She is planning on starting a nonprofit to help train women in the trades and help individuals with mobility challenges stay in their homes. 

Jackie works at this Real Estate company in the Portland, OR area: O’Donnell Group Realty­

What Will You Do?

Amid many stories of struggle and despair during the pandemic, there are also stories of empowerment and renaissance. Many people adjusted to new pandemic parameters and ended up liking the outcome. Perhaps you are questioning how you spend 40+ hours per week (more than 2000 hours per year!) in your current employment situation. If so, what better time to change it up than during a global upheaval? The Pivot, The Side Hustle, or The Radical Leap could be right for you.

Consider Jasmine Landry’s epiphany once she gave herself permission to change course: “I think my biggest personal lesson from my career move and the pandemic is that I don’t ‘have to’ do anything.  It was a big mental shift for me.  I don’t ‘have to’ take a safe job opportunity just because it’s what I thought I would do next. I don’t ‘have to’ stay in my expensive rental. I can weigh my options and make big moves—and change my mind and make new big moves.”

Jasmine’s parting words of wisdom to others is: “Think about what needs to be true for you to feel safe in a career shake-up. Figure out how much a safety net you need, put that net in place, then see what happens!”

Mary Oliver says it best in this poem called The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline

Published in ADDitude magazine on Oct. 29, 2021

by Megan Taylor Stephens

“Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline”

Has a crime occurred?

From another room, I hear my husband proclaim, “Why is there trash in the car? We have told you a million times. You’re supposed to leave it clean after you drive.”

“Just a second – I’m busy,” says our son, who is wrapped up in a critical siege in his videogame.

My husband is fuming. He believes that our 17-year-old son is being egocentric, disrespectful, and self-entitled. Furthermore, he thinks our son needs to be banned from driving for a week. I agree with the adjectives – they are kind of teen specialties, after all. But I disagree with the nature of the crime in the first place, and with the consequences part as well.

My husband thinks I’m coddling our son by not agreeing to a sizable consequence for his repeated misdemeanors. I don’t want to dismiss the situation entirely, but I fundamentally disagree with many of my spouse’s accusations. I believe it all boils down to a misperception about our son’s intentionality.

Is It ADHD? Or Bad Behavior?

My husband says there’s no way that our son doesn’t remember what he’s supposed to do, ADHD or no ADHD. After all, we have told him the rules countless times and threatened to take away the car keys if he doesn’t get his act together. But repeated infractions suggest that our son is willfully snubbing us and doesn’t care because we don’t crack down on him. To my husband, we are essentially raising an irresponsible brat who will not be ready to enter society as a fully functioning high school graduate in one year.

I, on the other hand, think that our son is just being a dingbat, to put it diplomatically. I don’t call my son names or anything, I just truly think he is being oblivious. Our son usually has his hands full when he exits the car (full of camera gear since he has been out doing photography for hours) and it probably escapes his mind that he needs to look around the car for his fast-food garbage and other semi-moldy detritus.

Even when he’s empty-handed, our son’s brain has likely moved on once he turns off the engine. He is on to grander notions than dealing with the empty Boba tea cups that leave residue on the floor of the car.

In a nutshell, I don’t think a real, intentional crime has occurred and, therefore, I don’t think punishment is necessary. I think we just need to tell our son to go back to the car and tidy up.

What Are Fair and Effective Consequence?

Let’s put aside the fact that we can’t agree that a crime has even occurred. In a court of law, the next step is to determine the punishment. Prior to doling out sentences, judges consider intentionality.

The concept of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) plays heavily into the trial and sentencing. A verdict of involuntary manslaughter vs. first-degree murder depends on things like planning, knowledge, and intentionality. The same goes for petty theft versus armed robbery. Accidental fire versus arson. We need to determine if the accused was careless, oblivious, and spur-of-the-moment. Or reckless, aware, and premeditated.

Except for certain heinous examples, I think that most of these crimes fall under two distinct categories: spontaneous adolescent versus hardened criminal.

Invariably, my husband tends to see our son’s actions as intentional or, at the very least, flagrantly careless. He goes for big punishment that I think is often totally unrelated to the incident in question. I am constantly suggesting smaller, more natural consequences that I think correspond better to the type and severity of the situation. Community service rather than jail time, if you will.

This difference in perception and interpretation regarding our son’s level of consciousness is a huge sticking point. It spills over into how we interact with our son, and the consequences we dole out.

We’re often at a stalemate and could really use an educated judge and a panel of jurors to help us out. Or at least more lawyer friends.

Talking Through our Differences

The mismatch in how we attribute intentionality in our son’s behaviors puts a strain on our marriage for sure (as is the case for most parents of kids with behavior challenges). I must admit, there were years when it almost seemed like a good idea to split up and co-parent in our own disparate ways.

Fortunately, my husband and I are pretty good at talking through our differences. Often, we come to a middle-of-the-road punishment, such as taking away the car keys for one day or making him vacuum out the car to “drive home” his responsibilities with a shared car.

I also have to admit that my logic often prevails. I remind my husband of all the times I’ve entered the garage, only to see his junk piled up everywhere after a million requests to return things to their original spot! In those instances, I tell myself that my husband doesn’t purposefully or maliciously disorganize the garage. He probably thought that he would deal with the mess he created later, I tell myself. Like my son, he was being a negligent scatterbrain rather than a conscious hooligan.

In the midst of my empathetic and gracious daydreams, I hear my husband say, “Son, we asked you hours ago to take out the garbage and recycling and mow the lawn.” And I hear our son reply mid-videogame battle, “Oh, yeah. I forgot. Gimme a minute.”

Chore Time
Car Cleaning